Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM
Sunday's Playoff Essentials
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Eastern Conference Semifinals – Game 1
No. 4 Boston at No. 1 Milwaukee (-7.5/223.5), ABC, 1:05 p.m. ET
Feb. 21 - Bucks (-6) 98 vs. Celtics 97 (Under 227)
Dec. 21 – Bucks (-1.5) 120 at Celtics 107 (Over 223.5)
Nov. 1 - Celtics (-2) 117 vs. Bucks 113 (Over 220.5)
The Bucks saw their season at the hands of the Celtics on April 28, 2018.
On this one-year anniversary of their last playoff loss, they’ll look to prove how much better off they are with Mike Budenholzer at the helm and a host of bigs who can stretch the floor now on the roster. Jabari Parker and John Henson have been replaced by Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez, which is really quite extraordinary considering the results Budenholzer’s system and those personnel tweaks have produced.
Milwaukee posted the NBA’s best record, led in margin of victory and has rightfully become the Eastern Conference betting favorite.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the likely MVP, Khris Middleton became an All-Star and Budenholzer is going to be your Coach of the Year.
With Lopez, Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova in place to help spread the floor, Antetokounmpo has had more room to work in the paint and outlets to pass the ball out to when he’s inevitably doubled. Operating at the NBA’s fifth-fastest pace throughout the regular season helped the Bucks average a league-high 118.1 points per game, finishing third in the league in offensive efficiency. Milwaukee also led the NBA in defensive efficiency, emerging as an elite team. The Westgate Superbook set a series price on this favoring Milwaukee (-275) and offering a healthy return if you're backing the Celtics (+225).
Boston head coach Brad Stevens, who nearly lost to interim head coach Joe Prunty in last season’s 2-7 pairing, matches wits against a peer who went 14-10 against him when with the Hawks. That includes “Coach Bud” winning the only playoff series in which they’ve crossed paths. Atlanta, then led by Al Horford, beat the Celtics in 2016, holding Stevens’ offense under 100 points in three of the wins, which included holding them to 72 and 83 points when they came through town.
That Boston team was led by Isaiah Thomas, who while explosive, has never been what Kyrie Irving is now. Combine that with the fact Horford will now be anchoring the defense Budenholzer now has to solve gives Stevens a great chance to get even despite being the series underdog this time around. Celtics-Hawks was the 4-5 matchup four years ago and the highly-regarded Stevens has again led his team to a fourth-place finish in the conference despite entering the season as a heavy favorite to win the East (5-to-6, +120 at Westgate LV Superbook) over the Raptors (11-to-4, +275) and 76ers (13-to-4, +325). The Bucks came in at 14-to-1 (+1400) to win the conference and 80-to-1 to win the championship, so if you’re in on either of those futures, you’re in a great spot but should be wary of Boston finally getting its act together to reach the conference finals for a third straight time.
Since losing to Budenholzer’s Hawks, Stevens has won four of six playoff series and has managed to do so without Irving, who was in Cleveland in ’17 and was injured during last year’s playoff run, which ended one victory shy of an NBA Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward also expected to be healthy, you can see why big things were expected from Boston back in October, but chemistry issues and the improvement of Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia have knocked them back down the pecking order. According to Westgate, the Celtics came in to this postseason at 4-to-1 (+400) to get out of the East, odds that were equal to the 76ers and behind the Bucks (5-to-4, +125) and Raptors (9-to-4, +225).
It didn’t help matters that they lost emotional leader Marcus Smart, a tremendous perimeter defender and a competitor whose intensity is infectious, tore his oblique just before the playoffs began. He’s been seen running and is grinding to get back far ahead of schedule but has been ruled out for Game 1 despite traveling to Milwaukee to be there with his team. His absence has forced Jaylen Brown into the starting lineup and has freed up more minutes for Hayward off the bench, which at least gives two wings who struggled with finding a consistent rhythm this season more opportunities for touches and increased playing time.
Both had their moments in Boston’s first-round series sweep of the Pacers, who had their chances to win in every single fourth quarter but couldn’t make shots when it mattered most. While the Celtics certainly had a lot to do with that, the Pacers’ lack of firepower was also a factor and should be of concern since the Bucks don’t have those issues. Milwaukee averaged 121.8 in their four-game sweep of the Pistons which failed to truly test in in the first round. Although Blake Griffin missed two of the contests, Detroit led at halftime twice but truly stood no chance, failing to cover even once in losing by a combined margin of 95 points (23.8 ppg).
Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 59 percent in leading the Bucks to a 2-1 regular-season mark against Boston. Middleton shot just 36.5 percent but averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
The Bucks were the East’s top home team this season, posting a 33-8 mark during the regular season, one game behind Denver. The Celtics were the final victim at the Bradley Center, losing in Game 6 of last year’s first round. They were facing the challenge of trying to close out that building and a series and ultimately lost 97-86. Boston will now look to get on the board at Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee’s new downtown arena in which they’ve only played in once, losing 98-97 in its first game out of the break. The Celtics were just 21-20 on the road during the regular season. VI NBA expert Kevin Rogers believes how they come out of the visiting locker room will be a determining factor.
“For the first time in eight playoff series, the Celtics are starting on the road,” Rogers said. “Boston fell by one point at Atlanta in that 2017 first-round opener. The Celtics and Bucks’ last series apparently never started as the home team won each game with Boston capturing Game 7 at TD Garden. Boston has dropped five consecutive visits to Milwaukee, while last winning in Wisconsin in October 2017. The Celtics went through a 2-11 stretch on the road in the postseason from 2017-18 prior to beating Indiana twice on the highway in this season’s opening round.”
Horford was absent for Boston’s 13-point loss vs. Bucks and played in their home win and narrow road loss, so staying on the floor has to be a priority. Antetokounmpo often seeks out contact, so Horford will be tasked with avoiding foul trouble while still doing his best to protect the rim since backups Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis both had injury-related issues down the stretch. Irving shot 46.5 percent on 3-pointers against the Bucks despite shooting just 38.8 from the field, but he outplayed counterpart Eric Bledsoe, averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 boards and 6.3 assists. Bledsoe, who was outperformed by Celtics backup Terry Rozier with Irving sidelined for last year’s playoff series, shot just 25 percent from 3-point range against Boston this season and averaged just 11.3 points. He’s had a tremendous year and was a borderline All-Star, so the Bucks are counting on him elevating his game to match his level of competition. How he settles in at both ends will play a crucial role in the series.
Third-year guard Malcolm Brogdon will miss at least the first two games of this series with a foot injury that has kept him out the past few weeks, which means Bledsoe will have less of a safety net. Backup George Hill is a proven veteran performer, but Brogdon led the league in free-throw shooting this season while shooting nearly 43 percent and playing fantastic perimeter defense. The hope is that he’ll be a factor deeper into the series, so the Celtics should feel a sense of urgency to try and steal one of these first two games in Milwaukee.
Oddsmakers sent out an opening total of 224 ½ for Game 1 and the number is sitting at 223 ½ at most books as of Saturday. During the season, the pair watched the ‘over’ go 2-1 in their three games and the totals ranged from 220 ½ to 227 ½. Chris David of VegasInsider.com respects the opening number and expects an adjustment for Game 2.
“This isn’t an easy series to handicap since both teams will be without key defensive players,” said David. “The most recent meeting in February (98-97) could be a sign of things to come in this series. Boston head coach Brad Stevens hasn’t had much success in the playoffs on the road, going 7-16 SU and 12-11 ATS. Scoring has been the issue and that lack of productivity has led to a 15-8 ‘under’ mark. The Celtics will enter this matchup with more firepower than ever before under Stevens and we all know how potent the Bucks can be when the shots are falling from distance. However, both teams are sound defensively and their numbers are on that side of the ball are often overlooked. I’m leaning to grinder in Game 1 and I believe the ‘under’ is worth a look in the afternoon matinee.”
The ’under’ went 5-1 in that 2016 series between Stevens’ Celtics and Budenholzer’s Hawks despite no total closing higher than 206 and the last two winding up sub-200. Game 2 will be played Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
Western Conference Semifinals – Game 1
No. 4 Houston at No. 1 Golden State (-5.5/224.5), ABC, 3:35 p.m. ET
March 13 – Warriors (+4) 106 vs. Rockets 104 (Under 228)
Feb. 23 – Rockets (+12) 118 at Warriors 112 (Under 232)
Jan. 3 – Rockets (+8.5) 135 at Warriors 134 (Over 225.5)
Nov. 15 – Rockets (-4) 107 vs. Warriors 86 (Under 217.5)
The series we’ve all anticipated has arrived.
The Houston Rockets are going to get another crack at the Warriors.
You won’t find anyone associated with last year’s Rockets who isn’t haunted by the fact they let Golden State off the hook in blowing a 3-2 series lead in the ’18 Western Conference finals. The what-if game is strong within their group for good reason, since Chris Paul’s hamstring injury kept him out of Games 6 and 7, allowing the Warriors to more easily impose their will. Harden struggled to hit shots and lift his team in a season where he’d eventually be named MVP, so that award is forever tarnished for him.
All that angst and regret could wind up a formidable driving force for Houston, which bolstered its belief that it can take down the Warriors by winning three of the four regular-season meetings, losing only the most recent one in March by a single bucket. The Westgate Superbook sent out early series price numbers that installed Golden State as a favorite of -360 and placed Houston at +280 but amended them to make the Warriors a -275 favorite with the Rockets at +225, numbers identical to the Bucks-Celtics series.
For the Warriors, this may end up being the toughest obstacle they must overcome in order to secure a three-peat. The Rockets view this as a vendetta and are mighty capable of executing efficiently enough to keep up with the Warriors, who looked extremely vulnerable on the defensive end in losing two games in their first-round series against the Clippers. While Kevin Durant exploited his mismatches late in the series after originally playing facilitator, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were inconsistent on the offensive end, struggling with their outside shot against L.A. DeMarcus Cousins’ ruptured quad in Game 2 takes him out of the equation for the rest of the postseason, forcing centers Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney into larger roles.
Golden State appears vulnerable. The fact this long-awaited series is coming one round earlier than it would’ve had the Rockets not finished as the No. 4 seed due to wild final night of the regular-season helps to dispel the narrative that Houston will run out of gas like it did last season, especially given how impressive the team was in eliminating Utah. Getting an extra few days of rest by defeating the Jazz in five games provided a significant boost since center Clint Capela has been dealing with multiple viruses that sapped his strength towards the latter part of their first-round series. With the worst behind him, the Rockets are healthier than they have been all season as this rematch approaches. We’ll see if that helps them dent Golden State’s brilliant record in Game 1 of the conference semifinals.
“During the Warriors’ four-year run as Western Conference champions, Golden State owns a 4-0 SU and 3-1 ATS mark in the opener of the second round,” pointed out VI’s Rogers. “The lone non-cover came against Utah in 2017 as 13-point favorites in a 106-94 win, but the Warriors have won by margins of 22, 12, 12, and 15 points in these games. The last time Houston was listed as an underdog in Game 1 of the conference semifinals came at San Antonio two years ago as the Rockets crushed the Spurs, 126-99 when receiving six points.”
Golden State is also looking to restore some of the fear factor its homecourt advantage is supposed to pack after suffering two memorable losses at Oracle Arena against the Clips. Their inability to get stops was glaring and undoubtedly feeds Houston’s confidence as it looks to come in and hang a big number in Oakland, where it won only once in three tries last postseason, evening the series at 2-2 with a 95-92 victory in Game 4. The Warriors blew out Houston 115-86 in Game 6 with Paul lost for the series, sending the message that the Rockets were doomed. Paul going out there at 100 percent to open this series is a big deal, so monitor his play early since I’d expect Harden to defer the catalyst role to him in an effort to get teammates going.
The total for Game 1 opened at 228 and the line dropped quickly to 225 ½. VI’s David offered up his thoughts on the opening number and move.
“This will be the fourth time in the last five years that the pair will meet in the postseason and the first three series has rewarded total bettors that have leaned to the low side. During this span, the ‘under’ has gone 14-3 (82.3%) in their 17 playoff meetings and that includes an 8-1 record at Oracle Arena. Delving into those nine games further, the Rockets were held under 100 points in seven of their trips to Oakland,” said David.
“Even though Houston scored 118 and 135 points in two wins at Golden State this regular season, it’s hard to ignore the postseason scoring issues away from home. The Rockets put up 104 in Game 3 of the first round at Utah but fell apart in Game 4 and only managed to score 12 points in the four quarter. They ended up with 91 points in that loss and it’s safe to say they’ll need to break the century mark for a win on Sunday afternoon. Knowing the Rockets have seen the ‘under’ cash in seven straight road games makes me want to lean ‘under’ in Game 1 but until Houston can snap out of this playoff funk, playing its Team Total Under (109 ½) looks more valuable to me.”
Game 2 will take place on Tuesday night in Oakland.
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